The Symphony of Belonging: Alfred Kazin on Music as Spiritual Homecoming
“A person’s identity,” Amin Maalouf wrote, “is like a pattern drawn on a tightly stretched parchment. Touch just one part of it, just one allegiance, and the whole person will react, the whole drum will sound.” It is a wonderful metaphor in part because it dances with the literal: So often, what strums the resonance of our identity most powerfully is music — that most expansive and embodied repository of memory, the memory that strings the narrative of selfhood we call identity.
Music as a fundament of identity and a portal to spiritual homecoming is what Alfred Kazin (June 5, 1915–June 5, 1998) explores in a passage from A Walker in the City (public library) — his absolutely wonderful inquiry into loneliness, otherness, and belonging.
Looking back on his childhood as the son of Russian Jewish refugees, in an era of routine discrimination and othering, he recounts how music filled his home with a sense of belonging, of homecoming, invoking the world his parents had left behind and rooting his own young self in a sense of communion with some greater whole:
You could melt their hearts with it; the effect of the violin on almost everyone I knew was uncanny. I could watch them softening, easing, already on the brink of tears — yet with their hands at rest in their laps, they stared straight ahead at the wall, breathing hard, an unforeseen smile of rapture on their mouths. Any slow movement, if only it were played lingeringly and sagely enough, seemed to come to them as a reminiscence of a reminiscence. It seemed to have something to do with our being Jews. The depths of Jewish memory the violin could throw open apparently had no limit — for every slow movement was based on something “Russian,” every plaintive melody even in Beethoven or Mozart was “Jewish.” I could skip from composer to composer, from theme to theme, without any fear, ever, of being detected, for all slow movements fell into a single chant of der heym and of the great Kol Nidre sung in the first evening hours of the Day of Atonement, in whose long rending cry — of contrition? of grief? of hopeless love for the Creator? — I relived all of the Jews’ bitter intimacy with death.
In a testament to the elemental fact that music is the most spiritual and the most spiritualizing of the arts, the one that most directly touches the mystery of aliveness, he adds:
Then I cranked up the old brown Victor, took our favorite records out of the red velvet pleated compartments, and we listened to John McCormack singing Ave Maria, Amelita Galli-Curci singing Caro Nome… and Alma Gluck singing Comin’ Thro’ the Rye. The high point was Caruso singing from La Juive. He inspired in my father and mother such helpless, intimidated adoration that I came to think of what was always humbly referred to as his golden voice as the invocation of a god. The pleasure he gave us was beyond all music.
Complement with other great writers on the singular power of music, the neurophysiology of how music moves us, and the poetic physicist Alan Lightman on music and the universe, then join me in reckoning with our shared responsibility in the fate of music in our own time.